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The Hashknife Outfit

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    Word Count: 2212Section 1: IntroductionWhen the Aztec Cattle Company (“”) first got to northeastArizona, they found knee-high grass as far as they could see. They moved cattle fromTexas to Arizona and just kept bringing in more and more. They ran those cattle onabout 2 million acres of land between Flagstaff and New Mexico. The cattle grazed thegrass off and the drought that had already started kept more grass from growing in. There was already very little water, so the cattle started dying off by the thousands.Country that used to look like an ocean of grass turned into a dried out, windblasted desert. During this same time, the railroads were being put in across the countryand cattle were starting to be shipped on trains. (This meant higher transportation costswhen cattle prices were starting to go down.) Some of the worst parts of Arizona’s history was caused by the Hashknife Outfitand its cutthroat hired help. Mormon settlers were harassed, robbed, and run out of thecountry. Cattle were stolen from the settlers and other ranches. But the worst problemsfrom the Hashknife cowboys was had by the sheepmen and the towns people. Towns likeHolbrook were the scenes of killing, drinking, whoring, and troublemaking. Thesheepmen were harassed, their sheep killed, and sometimes got themselves killed.

    Section 2: The Search The Hashknife Outfit pioneered large-scale cattle ranching in Arizona; but theirovergrazing scarred the land, drought and hard winters killed the cattle, and theircriminal behavior made its mark on Arizona’s history.

    The “Hashknife brand resembled a cooking utensil used by chuckwagon cooks tochop up meat and potatoes for hash. The brand was owned by the Aztec Land and CattleCompany and was used to brand thousands of cattle. Many cattle ranches came to beknown by their brands instead of by their company names because it was easier forpeople to remember–that’s why the Aztec Land and Cattle Company was called the”Hashknife Outfit”.(my mom–Arizona family verbal tradition)”The Hashknife Outfit was established in northern Arizona in 1884. Ashareholder in the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad persuaded a group of Eastern investors topurchase a million acres of grazing land offered for sale by the railroad. The new ranch,called the ‘Aztec Land and Cattle Company’, brought in 33,000 head of Texas LonghornCattle, a large remuda (herd of saddle broke horses) of horses, and the Hashknife brand”(Hughes xi). When the stockholders of the Aztec Land and Cattle Company were first meetingto form the company, cattle prices were already headed downward. Many people in thecattle business already felt that most grazing ranges were overstocked. During this sametime, the railroads were making their way across the country, and cattle were beginningto be shipped by train. This meant faster transportation of the cattle, but was veryexpensive, (it also meant the cattle reached the feedyards in much poorer condition), andcattle prices were getting weaker. The investors in the Aztec Land and Cattle Companydidn’t realize that their investment in cattle ranching was on shaky ground before theyever started. They just went on ahead and bought alternating sections (the railroadowned every other section in Arizona) of land clear across northern Arizona from theNew Mexico border to Flagstaff (Carlock n.p.; & family verbal tradition).

    When the Hashknife Outfit first got to Arizona, they found knee-high grass asclear across the Colorado Plateau as far as they could see. It’s impossible to believe thatnow, but back then it was like a prairie. They brought in more and more and more cattleuntil they had about 2 million head. The cattle grazed the grass off and the drought thathad already started kept the grass from ever growing back (Trimble 15).

    By 1892 and 1893, there was hardly any grass left and almost no water. AMormon historian, Joseph Fish, (LDS Family History Center, Joseph City, Arizona) saidthat the cattle all around them were dying by the thousands. Land that had first lookedlike an ocean of grass was looking like a dry, wind blasted desert. In the winters thecattle starved to death and died of thirst because there was more snow than usual (thesnow froze and crusted over so the cattle couldn’t find any feed). In that area, the windnever stops blowing, so what moisture could have come from the snow to grow grass justblew away (my mom–Arizona family verbal tradition).

    Most of the other ranchers were already selling out and moving on, or shippingtheir cattle to better areas like California. The Hashknife Outfit was controlled bystockholders and railroad people who didn’t live in Arizona and they liked to ship thecattle by train (expensive) to Kansas to the feedlots. This caused the Aztec Land andCattle Company to lose alot of money and even more cattle. Cattle prices were stillfalling (because the “Big 4” meat packers, Armour, Swift, Morris, and Fowler, werefixing prices by over filling the meat market with their own cattle), so the Aztec Land andCattle Company had to start selling off land to pay for their expenses and make up for thelosses (Carlock n.p.). The over-grazing of the land and the drought caused an even bigger problemwhen the monsoon season rains finally came. Their was no grass or brush left to hold thesoil down, so the torrential rains and flash-flooding washed away millions of tons of soiland carved out deep, miles long, washes and ditches. This meant that the grass wouldnever grow again in northern Arizona like it had been before the Hashknife Outfitshowed up.

    Because of the drought, the floods, the overgrazing, bad decision-making, cattlerustlers, run-ins with outlaws and sheriffs, and losing half their land because it wasn’tsurveyed right (and the railroad was going broke, so they couldn’t give them more land ortheir money back), the Aztec Land and Cattle Company sold most of their cattle for lessthan they paid. In 1897, they shipped out 693 railroad cars full of cattle from Holbrook–24,000 head of cattle(Carlock, np). They then sold huge amounts of land to the federalgovernment to make U.S. Forest Service national forests (family verbal tradition–yes, ourfamily really was there long enough to tell stories about it down through the generations). The Hashknife Outfit spent most of 1898, 1899, and 1900 gathering and sellingoff their cattle. By December of 1900, the Hashknife’s “army” of cowboys, hired hands,and cutthroats was down to just 2. The company mainly had to depend on theirneighbors to help them gather the remnants (last remaining cattle)–this took another 2 or3 years (my mom–family verbal tradition). In 1902, there was only one man left as an employee of the ranch. He was therejust as a caretaker for the last horses and the property. All of the cattle had been sold off,and the Hashknife brand was sold to the Babbitt Brothers Trading Company (Tinsley,135). The Aztec Land and Cattle Company did still own much of the land and did not gobankrupt. Land sales paid off their debts then and sales plus grazing leases have keptthem in money ever since.

    Some of Arizona’s most “colorful” historic events were centered around theHashknife Outfit and its lawless hired help. “Aside from some written memorandum andfiles, preserved by the Atlantic and Pacific Railway Company, the historical events thattook place in the decade of the 1880’s in northern Arizona were scantily documented. Because the land was so vast, it sometimes took days for information to reach thesettlements, and some news was never reported…not even belatedly” (Durham 261-263).

    A lot of the more well known happenings took place on or near or at the hands ofthe Hashknife Outfit. Mormon settlers came in and homesteaded land, but they didn’tbother the ranches in any other way. They just worked the land, but the cowboys andranchers thought they were in the way. A lot of Mormon families tell stories of whentheir ancestors were attacked or hurt or burned out by Hashknife cowboys.

    Most of the cattle rustling was done by small time thieves stealing from theHashknife, but the cutthroats who were hired guns for the Hashknife did their share ofstealing, too. Through these tough characters, the Hashknife gained power and control ofthe area by size and numbers. Many stories (verbal family traditions of Arizona families–like mine–that have been in Arizona since many years before the railroads or Hashknife)are told by people in northern Arizona whose families have been there since the railroadof the things done to people by the Hashknife cowboys.

    One story is about 3 innocent men who were hanged just outside the present townof Heber. One was a horse trader who had family back East with money. When thingsweren’t going well with the horses, the family sent the guy money. Rumors started thathe was stealing and selling other people’s horses. He was also always very nice to letpeople stay in his home when they were on the road. Some of the outlaws that workedfor the Hashknife were said to take things into their own hands and hung the horse traderand two travelers who were visiting in his home. No one ever stood trial for the hangings(Durham 261-262).

    Another thing that happened, that didn’t start as anything to do with theHashknife, but soon was made worse by the outlaws, is known as “The Pleasant ValleyWar.” Pleasant Valley is mostly all south of the land owned by the Aztec Land andCattle Company, but it was close enough for them to become involved. A cattle ranchernamed “Stinson” was losing alot of cattle to some rustlers named “Graham” who’d beenriding for him, and to some sheepmen named “Tewksbury”–who were also hired by himand stealing his cattle. Even though the rancher tried to have them all hung, no courtever found any of them guilty. The Grahams started running cattle on their own place, and just naturally hatedsheepmen. Like most cattle people those days, they felt that the sheep men and theirfences, and the way the sheep overgraze the grass, were why cattle weren’t doing verygood. For a while, sheepmen actuall made more money than the cattle men, and thatreally made alot of people (most were cattlemen originally from Texas where sheepmenhad already gotten in their way) very angry. The outlaws and trouble makers who worked for the Hashknife Outfit, a cattleoperation, usuall did everything they could to keep settlers and especially sheep peoplefrom crossing Aztec Company land. A lot of old stories are told there about flocks ofsheep being driven into the river and drowned, or herds of horses being stampeded overthe top of them. While the Hashknife cowboys were causing all this trouble, the Grahams and theTewksburys were making more trouble for Stinson, who had had his fill of all of them,too. A mistake was made by one of the Tewksbury’s, who apologized to Stinson, and oneof Stinson’s hired men used the excuse to start trouble. In self-defense, the Tewksburyman shot at the hired hand and hit him in the leg. The hired hand rode straight over tothe Grahams and told them he’d been attacked (That was the first shot of the PleasantValley War.) (Carlock n.p.).

    The Tewksbury was sent to Prescott for trial, but died before the hearing. TheTewksbury’s blamed his death on the Grahams. More sheep were being brought onto theTewksbury’s ranch about this same time. Soon one of the Tewksbury’s shepherds waskilled–it was never “proven” that the Grahams killed him. This killing led to moreshooting and killing and the involvement of the “Blevins” gang–employees of theHashknife Outfit–of Holbrook. The killings went on, back and forth for almost 5 yearsuntil the last of the Grahams was dead, the last of the Tewksburys left the area, andSheriff Commodore Perry Owens of Holbrook had killed the Blevins'(Carlock n.p.). Other stories tell of barroom brawls (one bar in Holbrook was actually renamed”The Bucket of Blood Saloon” because of the killing), shooting up the towns in andaround Holbrook and Winslow, settlers who were burned out, killed, or “went missing,”and many more troubles as long as the Hashknife Outfit was in business. Section 3: ConclusionThe land no longer looked like a tall-grass prairie; it was a desert with hugeditches gouged out. The Hashknife Outfit had brought so many cattle into a dry grazingarea, that they had completely destroyed the natural grasses. The droughts and freezeshad succeeded in finishing off what little cattle business was left after the starvation. When the Hashknife cattle started dying off and were eventually sold out, and theonce gigantic cattle power was gone, northern Arizona settled down to a peaceful, quietplace. Well, for as quiet and peaceful as a frontier state that still had unsettled NativeAmericans, lawless fugitives, gamblers and miners could get.

    There was very little bloodshed after the Blevins gang was killed off at the end ofthe Pleasant Valley war. The harrassing and killing that the Hashknife’s hired guns wereknown for was part of a past era that couldn’t exist with more modern laws, lawmen andpeople. Although there were some small events with outlaws, shootouts, and theoccasional Indian, the wildness of the frontier in Northern Arizona was a thing of thepast.

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